At the start of Augusten Burroughs's zany childhood memoir, the author's mother, Deirdre, stands in front of the bathroom mirror and declares: "Damn it, something isn't right." Although she is referring to her own appearance, her comment could equally apply to her entire family. A talentless poet, Deirdre labours under the illusion that one day she will be "very famous". Her husband, Norman, is an alcoholic mathematician whose idea of parental affection is letting his children accompany him to the rubbish dump. Augusten's elder brother, Troy, suffers from a mild form of autism that leaves him free from "emotional ties" (although, given what the rest of his family are like, this is probably no bad thing). And Augusten himself, while apparently stable, has a bizarre fantasy life that involves dreaming about launching his own range of hair products.
The memoir opens with the disintegration of Augusten's parents' marriage. The pair trade insults and attack each other with cooking implements. Augusten implores them to stop ("You always fight and I hate it"), but they simply ignore him and move to another room. At this point, Running with Scissors looks like being a heart-rending account of a harrowing upbringing. But the mood acquires a hilarious edge when Deirdre starts seeing a psychiatrist.
Dr Finch is no ordinary shrink. A Santa Claus lookalike, his idea of treating mental illness is to invite his patients - and their relatives - to inspect his "masturbatorium". Following his parents' separation, Augusten moves in with Dr Finch and his family. The Burroughses may not have been the most straightforward of families but, compared with the Finches, they are a picture of normality. Dr Finch, a Sixties-style progressive, subscribes to the theory that discipline of any sort is harmful to a child's development. From an early age, therefore, all his children have been free to do as they please. The doctor now extends this privilege to Augusten. Accordingly, when 13-year-old Augusten embarks on a homosexual affair with one of his former patients, Dr Finch not only does not object to the relationship, but advises Augusten that he could have done better. Soon afterwards, when Augusten announces that he doesn't enjoy school, Finch arranges for him to be excused indefinitely from full-time education on medical grounds.
Finch's laissez-faire approach to parenting doesn't prevent him from dominating the household with his personality. His children regard him as a genius, and pepper their arguments with psychoanalytical cliches: "You're so oral. You'll never make it to genital! The most you can ever hope for is to reach anal, you immature, frigid old maid." Finch also has a scatological fixation: every morning, he forces his family to congregate in the bathroom to witness his "toilet bowl readings" (I won't go into the details). Although Burroughs applies a comic gloss to such goings-on, it becomes increasingly clear that Finch's intentions are malevolent: he wants to reduce his patients to a state of utter dependence. Much to his credit, however, Burroughs does not spell this out, but allows Finch's odiousness to reveal itself obliquely. For instance, when Augusten walks into his mother's motel room and finds the psychiatrist on top of her, he does not question what is happening, and only later does it emerge that he had witnessed an attempted rape. This approach has two advantages. First, it realistically captures Augusten's childhood naivety. Second, it makes us reflect on the true purpose of Burroughs's humour. Is he being funny simply to amuse his readers, or is this his way of coping with events that are too disturbing to recount in a matter-of-fact way?
Running with Scissors leaves a number of questions unanswered. What were the emotional consequences of Augusten's upbringing? How did Finch manage to avoid being locked up - or at least stripped of his right to practise - for so long? And, perhaps most importantly, did the events described, incredible as they seem, really happen? The reader is left uncertain on all three counts, but perhaps Running with Scissors is all the better for it. After all, in such a deeply mixed-up milieu, too much reality would seem out of place.
William Skidelsky is deputy arts and books editor of the NS